Happy that you can use your iPhone at work? Thank Microsoft

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates on stage together in 2010. Credit: David Geller

Perhaps no company has been threatened by consumerization like Microsoft, as first smartphones and then tablets running non-Windows operating systems have slowly taken their place in enterprises alongside the Windows PC.

Ironically, Microsoft helped open the door to these devices. 

Consumerization has been around since the dawn of the PC era, but the latest wave started in 2007 when new iPhone users began bringing their devices to work and asking IT departments to let them connect to email. 

For a lot of IT shops, that was a no-go, as one lost iPhone would give an outsider access to company email. If pressed -- say, if the CEO insisted on being able to read email on his new gadget -- IT would eventually allow devices to connect to email, but would restrict access to other internal resources.

As Galen Gruman at InfoWorld points out, that began to change with iOS 4.0 in 2010, which included support for Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) protocols. Those protocols allowed Exchange shops to set security parameters on employees' iPhones, such as forcing them to enter a password of a certain length and complexity, and gave them the ability to wipe lost phones. With those security controls in place, IT became much more accepting of letting employees access all kinds of internal resources. Google eventually followed Apple and started adding EAS support to Android.

EAS was the crack in the dam that opened the way for the iPhone, Android phones, and the iPad, to take their place alongside Windows PCs in enterprises as real work tools.

So why did Microsoft decide to license EAS in the first place? Why not keep it as a proprietary feature for its own mobile platforms?

Analyst Rob Sanfilippo from Directions on Microsoft speculates, "At that time, selling Exchange (and Windows Server) was a clear priority over dominating the device market, so Microsoft likely saw EAS licensing as a way to promote Exchange and incur some licensing revenue. This strategy probably wasn’t questioned even as iPhone was released, and Apple licensed EAS before iPhones and iOS became all the craze."

The first company to take an EAS license was PalmOne, maker of the then-popular Palm Treo smartphone, which ran PalmOS. That happened in October 2004.

At that time, Exchange Server was already a billion dollar annual business for Microsoft. Windows Mobile was nowhere close.

A month later, Motorola took a license for its A780 feature phones, which were based on Linux and Java. (Foreshadowings of Android.) Several other smartphone makers followed, with Apple taking its fateful license in March 2008.

Licensing EAS also coincided with a broader move toward more openness and interoperability across Microsoft. Microsoft began a formal intellectual property licensing program in 2003 and dramatically expanded it with an interoperability pledge in February 2008. Regulators may have helped spur Microsoft in that direction -- particularly the EU, which in January 2008 expressed concern that Microsoft was not revealing enough interoperability information about its products. (That investigation was later settled.)

Whatever the reason, when Microsoft looks at why iOS has become such a force in the enterprise, it has to spend at least a little time looking in the mirror.

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